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A Run among the Tombstones

The living come with grassy tread

To read the gravestones on the hill;

The graveyard draws the living still,

But never any more the dead.

                Robert Frost (In a Disused Graveyard)

Imagine this: it’s a Sunday morning, you’re walking through the trees, listening to the birds chirping, hearing the leaves crunch beneath your shoes, and soaking up the sunlight. This image creates a sense of peace and quiet. It’s something most people living in big cities desperately crave, at least I do. Ever since moving to Vienna (on an Erasmus) I have been looking for a place like this that doesn’t require a 30 min ride in the U-Bahn. Especially to go for a run. Running through the streets, or on a treadmill just is not the same. Even in Maastricht there are only so many times you can go to the stadspark and not everyone is fit enough to run upto Pietersberg without crashing by the time you get there (I know I’m not). 

When looking for parks and urban green areas, the central cemetery of Vienna (Wiener Zentralfriedhof) was one of the first to pop up. Now personally this shocked me a bit as that is one of the last places I would ever think of going. That might be because I associate it with either religion or tourists, neither of which I’m very fond off. So my next google search was: “Running graveyards disrespectful?” This search showed that there are actually 2 running tracks through the cemetery here; one of 2 km and one of 5 km (Silent Run 1 & 2), so apparently not. I decided to go and take a look for myself and went for a hike. Avoiding the tourist-laden ‘composers area’ (Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, …)  I wandered into the more abandoned and quiet areas, which honestly are absolutely beautiful. It started feeling a bit eerie, there were some tombstones that looked ready to cave in and it was all overgrown with plants. The crow of a pheasant then almost make me jump out of my skin. Despite all of this, the overall experience was calming and nice. But I was still wondering, is it disrespectful to actually go for a run here. Not just a hike but actually running with headphones and everything? 

When you look into running forums and places like quora for an answer to this question, some very curious things come up. “The dead can’t run, so why make them feel worse about being trapped underground?” Which is a very sympathetic thing of Anonymous101 on quora to consider, but also gives rise to Night of the Living Dead (1968) flashbacks. Or “the dead don’t mind, trust me!” Trust me? Now I certainly hope this person isn’t speaking out of first-hand experience. But there were also some who are more positive to the idea of running on cemeteries. “They might enjoy the company, it must get lonesome after all”, “Who knows, they might even talk to you”, “It is a public place and meant to be visited, the dead are on display. If that is something you don’t like you should be cremated”.  Of course the most logical (non-creepy) answer to give also popped up, namely: “as long as you don’t bother anyone, I don’t see why it would be a problem”. 

The main function a cemetary fulfills is commemoration, it is a place of memory. Not only the memory of a single person or family, but also cultural memory. A cemetery is often very reflective of the history and culture of the place you are in. If you visit a cemetery in Maastricht you will learn something about the history and culture of Maastricht. The ‘Algemene Begraafplaats Tongerseweg’ for instance actually gives guided tours that tell you about the history of Maastricht and some of the famous mayors or painters that rest there now.

 Especially in older cemetaries the status differences are often extremely visible. In this respect one can consider a cemetery as a microcosm of the real world. Miller and Rivera explain: “ cemetery design soon began to incorporate nature in the beautification of the final resting place to strengthen the ‘interaction’ between the dead and the living. To make the cemetery a place where the living would feel comfortable, arrangement was created by emulating the plans of a city”. The goal in cemetery design is to make it an enchanting place, rather than one of horror. This highlights another important aspect about graveyards, they are designed to ‘draw in the living’. Or as the marketing team for the Silent run in Vienna called it ‘getting the interest of younger generations’. 

The way in which we today use the cemetery is much more than just commemoration, it has become a multifunctional space. From hiking to dog walking, photography, to running. On a surface level these functions don’t clash with each other. Research on the usage of cemeteries in Mälmo (Sweden) has led Grabalov to explain that urban densification has led to the increased pressure on green urban spaces. So there are many people, like me, looking for green spots to escape to in the city. People go running somewhere close to their home, if a cemetery is the closest, then most people would be inclined to go there. However the opinions regarding running in cemeteries are still a bit divided. Some people are of the opinion that it should be totally okay and even encouraged, others think it is just plain disrespectful. But then there are also those that see a cemetery as a ‘special space’ that requires a certain behaviour from visitors to ensure the peaceful atmosphere does not get lost, within these guidelines running should be permitted. How people respond to this debate is highly personal, since it depends on your views and the culture from which you come. So I’m curious, what do you think? Should I go for a run among the tombstones of Schubert and Beethoven this halloween?

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